The much-praised Cincinnati-turned-Brooklyn band unfurled a bona fide rock spectacle for a well-behaved, enthusiastic crowd at Calvin’s Van Noord Arena on Saturday. (Review, photo gallery)
One of the most common criticisms lodged against The National is that they’re “boring.” This jab typically comes from a listener who fails to connect with the band’s more esoteric musical/lyrical qualities and the morose vocal stylings of Matt Berninger.
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It’s impossible to say whether Saturday night’s performance at Calvin College would sway the ambivalent, but even those who’ve never mustered more than a “Meh” and a shoulder shrug for the band’s albums would have to admit the group can stage one hell of a performance.
Their 105-minute set spanned the 13-plus years of their catalog and was a solid rock concert in the grand tradition of the term.
It included a killer light show, ambiguously smoky stage and enough towering speakers to max out the sound levels in the 5,000-capacity arena (and likely beyond). Berninger and company brought it, whether blasting the crowd with the frenetic “Abel” (from 2005’s breakthrough “Alligator”) or bringing it down a hundred-plus notches for an acoustic show closer of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Tears” (off 2010’s “High Violet”).
A few friends in the upper tier later observed that — from their seats — Berninger’s baritone often was overpowered by the instrumentation. However, the mix sounded dead-on from my general-admission vantage point on the floor, strategically positioned directly in front of the soundboard.
Saturday’s show represented a significant shift from the band’s last visit to Grand Rapids, when The National played for a grossly under-filled room at The Intersection in 2006. So, it was heartening to see and hear that even as the act has grown to assume larger spaces, it hasn’t lost that authenticity which helped music lovers latch onto its music in the first place.
My Brightest Diamond, a project led by singer and multi-instrumentalist Shara Worden, offered an eclectic 45-minute set to open the show. The performance included several musicians from Calvin College’s own music department — a nice touch. Worden later returned to the stage to join Berninger in providing vocals for a National song.
THE VIBE: Polite exuberance. The crowd — a mix of college kids and seasoned rock fans — were on good behavior at the well-attended show. Lots of rhythmic, and sometimes arhythmic, hand clapping and plenty of affection for a band that has earned its audience’s respect over years of solid output.
HIGHLIGHTS: Berninger’s excursion into and around the arena crowd as he sang “Mr. November,” trailed by what must be the longest mike cable in the industry. A few people joked that he needs a wireless, but it’s a smartly calculated performance move. After all, getting smacked in the head with (or helping to guide) the singer’s cable is the next best thing to getting to touch his shoulder as he briefly collapses onto the bleachers next to you. All that is to say: Berninger knows how to work a crowd.
Other highlights included a faithful rendition of audience favorite “Fake Empire,” from 2008’s “The Boxer,” and a gravelly take on the rage-bubbling-below-the-surface, “Squalor Victoria.”
THE BANTER: Berninger was appreciative of fans and often lighthearted, gently rebuffing the audience’s request for a performance of the joke song “Yeti, Get Ready” that he co-wrote on “The Pete Holmes Show” earlier this month (“We can’t do the Yeti song tonight – it’s too dirty”) and introducing “Lemonworld” as the song that the band had argued most about from “High Violet.” It also happened to be the track they ended up liking the most in the end.
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